What Inspires You?

Westchester chefs out their inspiration, from other chefs to cookbooks.

According to Chef Chris Vergara (of Meritage in Scarsdale and Harper’s of Dobbs Ferry), cookbooks—even those geared for civilians—are the “dirty little secret” of restaurant chefs. The odd thing is that chefs are increasingly happy to air their dirty secrets in public.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the volumes by Marco Pierre White and Jim Meehan resting high on the shelves at Vergara’s new Hastings-on-Hudson restaurant, Saint George, are a clever bit of aspirational branding—but, in fact, those shelves are just Vergara’s cooking library. Says Vergara of the high placement of his favorite resources, “I saw that they had put one particular book up there, and I thought, ‘Oh, f***, how am I going to get to it now?’” For Vergara, the use of cookbooks at his restaurants is nothing new. “I opened Meritage when I was 25. At that point, I had to look up how to make chicken stock.” 

In the Eastchester dining room of Polpettina, you’ll find books by Michael Ruhlman, Marcella Hazan, and Thomas Keller. “Most of them are by chefs we like, but some of them are ‘cooking-with-your-grandmother’ kind of books,“ laughs Polpettina’s co-owner, Chef Mike Abruzese. “We look at the recipes, check out what they’re doing, and, if we like it, we’ll take one idea and give it our own twist.” Were Polpettina’s books purpose-bought for the restaurant? “Noooo…These are all books from our personal collections—from Kyle’s [Inserra, Polpettina’s co-owner] house and mine.”

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One favorite at Polpettina is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Says Abruzese, “Rather than recipes, it tells you when a product is in season and then gives you the best method for cooking it. So, I can look up, say, chickpeas, and it’ll tell me that fresh chickpeas are in season during the summer. It’ll say that braising is a good way to cook them, and then it’ll list all the other flavors that pair well with chickpeas: prosciutto, lemon, etc. It’s a great source of ideas rather than recipes.”

Then there are the emergency orders that spawn a frantic run to the bookstore. In 1999, when Jay Muse and Victor Gonzalez opened Lulu Cake Boutique—the Scarsdale bakery that went on to create specialty cakes for Madonna, Mariah Carey, Whoopie Goldberg, and Jimmy Fallon—the pair did not plan for their bakery to be a source for wedding cakes; they were thinking more of muffins. Says Muse, “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We got an order and we had to fill it—in, like, three days. Nowadays, you’d probably just look on the Internet, but, back then, we had to find out which Barnes & Noble still had a copy of the first edition of Martha Stewart’s Wedding Cakes. We wound up driving all the way to Pennsylvania for that book.” 

Wedding-cake crisis over, Muse still takes inspiration from certain cookbooks, particularly, those that deal in the more scientific end of the cookbook spectrum: anything by Harold McGee, or Barb Stuckey’s Taste: What You’re Missing (a book that Muse calls Lulu’s “bible.”) Says Muse, “I can’t really take recipes from cookbooks; extending home-scaled cookbook recipes—a hundred times a quarter cup of flour—actually doesn’t work. But I will take inspiration, things like using brown butter in my chocolate chip cookies to give them a richer, nutty flavor.”

So, the next time you see cookbooks in a dining room, don’t assume that they’re there simply a set dressing. Instead, take a look at the restaurant’s menu and look for the books’ resonance there.

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